When Jamaica Plain resident Katherine Walsh was a graduate student at Harvard Medical School working at a research lab at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she didn’t imagine she’d be diagnosed with cancer herself.
Ten years ago at the age of 23, Walsh was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), and went through two years of radiation and chemotherapy at the very place she had just been conducting cancer research. She had to put her PhD on hold.
“It was pretty surreal,” she said, “but it did give me a new sense of purpose when I came back to graduate school and a real drive to do the work.” She said that even though she was wrapped up in the “stress of exams,” her own diagnosis was a “constant reminder of why we’re all doing this in the first place.”
Now, Walsh works at the Broad Institute in Cambridge on oncology drug discovery.
Walsh has also participated in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk for the past six years, and this year’s walk, slated for October 4, will mark the 10th anniversary of her cancer diagnosis. The annual walk raises money for adult and pediatric care and cancer research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Walsh is the Team Captain of the Young Adult Program, which she chose to support because its mission was one that helped her as a cancer patient.
“It was extremely isolating to be a patient,” Walsh said. “Emotionally, it was really hard.” She said that she quickly learned through her own experience that some situations are “unique to young adult patients,” as many are just beginning their careers and figuring out who they are.
“All of a sudden I was back in my parents’ house and being taken care of and sleeping in my childhood bedroom,” she said, and had to watch her peers go through milestones of being a young adult. Due to her weak immune system, she had to remain inside the house or be in the hospital for long stretches at a time.
She said the Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber was “really important to me for my process and healing” to meet other people her age who were going through a similar experience.
The program also allowed her to participate in events like an annual conference where she met people that have become “lifelong friends,” she said. “It was a silver lining of the experience.”
The program also provides patients with resources on things like finances and nutrition to help them ease back into a normal life.
She said that because of her great experience with the Young Adult Program, “I really feel like it’s essential and extremely important to help others connect and get through this experience. It’s important for me to give back to that community.”
For her seventh Jimmy Fund Walk this fall, she said she is proud to lead a team of patients, caregivers, friends, and supporters who will all walk together to raise money for the Young Adult Program, which will receive all of the funds raised by Walsh’s team.
“It is gratifying to us to know we’re supporting others in similar situations,” she said.
This year is also special because she will be joined by her young son who will cross the finish line with her. “It’s going to be really emotional,” she said. “It’s really just complete gratitude when I look at my son and when I think about where we’ve come from it’s just pretty amazing. I honestly cannot say enough about the care team I had and the support system they formed around my family and myself. I feel like they’re all a part of my story and my family’s story.”